JCB’s Off-Road to Zero

To tackle the risks of climate change, the UK passed the Climate Change Act on June 27, 2019, becoming the first major economy to pass a net-zero emissions law. The act commits the UK to net-zero greenhouse emissions by 2050. Two days later Canada made the same commitment with the Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act. There are now over 120 countries committed to net-zero emissions by 2050.

To meet these ambitious targets, Rochester, England-based JCB began to evaluate the various technologies available to reduce CO2 emissions.

Electric Vehicle (EV) Batteries

JCB developed the world’s first battery-electric mini excavator and has been at the forefront of electric technology development to meet customers’ demands for zero-carbon products with its E-TECH range. Today JCB has the largest electric lineup available.
Although this works well with compact equipment, it only accounts for 5% of JCB equipment’s CO2 footprint, with its mid-range accounting for 70% and its heavy line accounting for 25%.

Initially, JCB believed that the logical progression would be to develop electric battery solutions for its mid-range and heavy lines of equipment, but is the technology scalable?

Currently the JCB 19C-1E 2-ton mini electric excavator uses four JCB designed battery packs, allowing the machine to run a full day before recharging. JCB evaluated what this would mean for a 20-ton excavator:

# of Battery PacksRunning Time (hrs)Added Weight (lbs)Cost vs Diesel Machine

As you can see from the chart above, a 20-ton excavator that runs for 16 hours on battery would need 22,000 lbs of batteries. The result would be a 30-ton excavator that does the work of a 20-ton machine at 4.3 times the price. In addition, it would take 12 hours to charge the battery without a fast charger.

Reducing the number of batteries does not present an ideal solution either. For example, if the excavator used 100 battery packs, a company would need two machines to work a 16-hour day or be subject to significant downtime while the batteries recharge.
There are other challenges as with EV batteries as well:

  • Electric vehicles work well in an urban environment with the infrastructure to recharge batteries. In rural sites, generators are often needed to recharge the batteries and companies sometimes end up using diesel generators, defeating the purpose of the zero-emission batteries. With the high cost of batteries, swapping out batteries is not feasible and is time consuming.
  • Lithium, nickel and cobalt are the key metals used to make EV batteries and the price of batteries are dependent on their availability. Analysts believe there is a potential shortfall in the global mining capacity required to extract the minerals needed to manufacture sufficient batteries to meet projected EV demand.
  • The mining process can be environmentally harmful.
  • Many buyers of heavy equipment will only purchase equipment with new batteries, leading to more waste.

JCB consulted their customers and their requirements were clear. They needed a simple, fast refuelling system equivalent to the current system without the harmful emissions. It was clear the EV battery system would not work for larger equipment, so they investigated the following alternative fuels:

  1. (HVO) Biofuel HVO can be produced using a variety of feedstocks including vegetable oils such as grapeseed, soybeans, non-food oils and waste fats such as animal fats or used cooking oils. Because of its diesel-like properties, it can be used as a drop-in fuel to replace conventional fossil fuel diesel without any modifications to the engine. Although this reduces CO2 emissions during the production process, this solution produces the same CO2 emissions as conventional diesel while burning. In addition, producing crops to produce fuel instead of food may not be the ideal solution.
  2. Biogasis Biogas is a biofuel derived from the decomposition of organic waste such as food and animal waste. A blend of gases, primarily methane and carbon dioxide, is released when the organic matter decomposes in an anaerobic environment. Disadvantages of this solution include its dependence on a large supply of organic waste, the dependence on weather and the foul odour emitted from biogas power plants.
  3. Electrofuels (E-Fuels) A drop-in fuel like HVO, e-fuels are manufactured by combining CO2 captured from the air with hydrogen obtained from sustainable electricity sources such as wind, solar or nuclear power to form hydrocarbons. Hydrocarbons can be used to make oil products. Challenges with e-fuels include an increased cost (10x conventional diesel) due to the complicated production process and its unsuitability for cold climates.
  4. Ammonia While HVO, biogas and e-fuels offer low CO2 emissions, they still produce CO2 at the tailpipe. Ammonia is colourless fuel emits no carbon dioxide when burned. Both fuel cells and internal combustion engines can use it. A more sustainable version, called green ammonia, is made with hydrogen that comes from water electrolysis powered by alternate energy such as solar, wind or nuclear, combined with nitrogen from the air. The top concern with this fuel type is its toxicity. In concentrated form, the pungent, colourless gas can be deadly. In addition, ammonia is corrosive to some alloys and plastics. Combustion yields a small amount of nitrous oxide, another greenhouse gas.
  5. Hydrogen HVO, e-fuels and ammonia all have hydrogen as a key ingredient, but hydrogen can be used as a fuel source itself. It is a clean fuel that when reacted with oxygen produces energy. Its only by-product is water. The best way to produce hydrogen (green hydrogen) is to use electricity produced from solar, wind or nuclear to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. There is 3 times more energy in hydrogen than diesel. Hydrogen can be transported as a gas or liquid.

After looking at the alternatives, JCB chairperson Lord Bamford commented: “On a busy building site, large heavy machines must be refueled efficiently, effectively and quickly, and very often. Batteries can’t do that, but hydrogen can. It’s the most abundant element with the highest energy content of any common fuel by weight.”

Hydrogen Fuel Cells

Once JCB had decided that hydrogen had the most potential in the construction and agricultural industries, the company began to investigate hydrogen fuel cells. Hydrogen fuel cells produce electricity by combining hydrogen and oxygen atoms. The hydrogen reacts with oxygen across an electrochemical cell similar to that of a battery to produce electricity with water and heat its only by-products. Fuel cells do not need to be periodically recharged like batteries, but instead continue to produce electricity as long as a fuel source is provided.

After obtaining a fuel cell, JCB began to develop a 20-ton excavator prototype, though this determined to be more difficult than initially believed. The engine and most of the components had to be redesigned. The engine required a cooling pack that was susceptible clogging from dust and dirt. In addition, the fuel cells, and required components, are very expensive, and the price of fuel cells is highly reliant on the price of platinum.

The Chairman’s Challenge

After completing the hydrogen fuel cell prototype, the JCB team agreed that the design was complicated, cost prohibitive and was limited by the current supply of hydrogen fuel cells. In July 2020, the team presented their findings to Lord Bamford. Understanding this, Lord Bamford issued a challenge to the engineering team: “Design a hydrogen motor. One that delivers power in the same way as conventional engines.”

JCB’s Solution:
The Hydrogen Combustion Engine

To date, JCB has invested £100 million (CAD $166 million) in a project to produce a super-efficient hydrogen engine. According to the company, a team of 100 engineers has been working on the project for more than a year and the 50th hydrogen combustion engine has come off the production line as part of the development process.

JCB hydrogen engines are already powering prototype backhoe loaders and Loadall telescopic handlers, and the company has recently unveiled its very own designed-and-built mobile refueling bowser to take the fuel to the machines. The bowser has enough hydrogen to fill 16 hydrogen backhoe loaders and can be transported either on the back of a modified Fastrac tractor or on a trailer.

Unlike the hydrogen fuel cell excavator prototype, the 4-cylinder, 4.4-litre hydrogen combustion engine can be used in existing diesel machines with little modifications, other than the diesel fuel tank being replaced by a hydrogen fuel tank.

The Challenges Ahead

Now that JCB has proven that a hydrogen combustion engine is possible, the infrastructure to develop green hydrogen must be built. JCB is being transparent about their plans because they believe that construction and agricultural manufacturers will have to work together to achieve these goals.
JCB has announced that it will showcase its super-efficient hydrogen combustion technology at the ConExpo 2023 show in Las Vegas as part of the International Fluid Power Exposition (IFPE).